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Questioning if Agile Works in Asia

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A number of commentators have asserted that Agile and/or Scrum does not work effectively in some Asian cultures.   The counter argument is also well represented in the blog-sphere.  This article presents both points of view. 

Is Agile/Scrum Counter to the Asian Mindset?

Joshua Partogi, Professional Scrum Trainer at, recently wrote an article on Scrum does not work in Asia. He claims that most banks in Asia have not gone full-throttle with agility.

Partogi gives reasons why Scrum and agility do not work in Asia. He asserts that the major reason why Scrum does not work to the fullest in Asia is because most Asians are comfortable in the presence of a hierarchy in which they know their position and the customs/rules for behavior in the situation.

People expect to be told what to do and people want to tell other people what to do because that is how a system that is in order works.

He states that Asians tend to avoid conflicts in order to maintain harmony with their peers, which impacts the way agile teams in Asia run their sprint planning, sprint review, sprint retrospectives, and daily scrum. According to Partogi, people tend to hold back their opinions because they are not accustomed to a safe environment in which to they may make mistakes.

Claudio Caballero, CTO at Goodwill Group Foundation, suggests that one reason may be the difficulty in telling hard truths in Asian culture, in his blog on Agile adoption in Asia faces tough obstacles.

Agile requires an ability to tell hard truths to those controlling the purse strings, which is decidedly difficult in Asian cultures that place a much higher premium on deference, respect, and "saving face" than is the case in the western cultures where agile techniques were pioneered.

Ken Schwaber, Co-Founder of Scrum and Head Of, mentions culture barriers in promoting the idea of Scrum in China on his blog. He says that people who expect predictability face problems in an agile environment.

People who are culturally attuned to predictability want to believe that they can predict the future. Their job is then to cause the future to come true by forcing the people and resources to make it happen. People who use Scrum have learned that predictability is impossible when complex, creative work like software development is done. The results are terrible: bad software, missed schedules, wasted money, and demoralized workers.

Partogi says that the Asian education system also impacts the way people think and behave in the work environment.

The Asian education system is all about high grades and ranks, not about experimenting, self- discovery and making mistakes, which is what Agility is all about.

Partogi says that because of the outsourcing model in Asia, organizations try to reduce development cost by using Agile, but Agility demands great team members who most often are not cheap. He feels that Scrum will be challenged in Asia as long as people still think that transitioning into Agility is cheap. 

The Counter Argument - Agile is Not Easy, Anywhere

John Okoro of the Auspicious Agile blog published a post titled "An Optimistic View of Agile Adoption in Asia" in which he explores many of the same arguments made by Partogi and comes to a very different conclusion.  He starts by making the point that Asia is not monocultural:

It is important to remember that Asia is not monolithic or homogeneous. China is different from ASEAN, India, Japan, and Korea. Countries in ASEAN differ, Singapore is not the same culturally as Thailand or Indonesia. To look at Asia as one monolithic place is not an accurate or informed view.

Researcher Geert Hofstede provides a tool for exploring different aspects of national culture in his Cultural Dimensions country comparison tool.  Hofstede makes the point that the cultural dimensions are broad generalisations and that within countries there will be vast differences in organisation, team and individual cultural aspects. 

Okoro goes on to tackle the percieved education system bias.  He says:

My wife, a teacher by training in the US, came to Singapore on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the education System. One of her findings was that even though in past generations the education system was very focused on grades and rank, that there is more of a move now towards creative thinking and creative problem solving in the schools. 

The overall trend in Asia is toward greater creativity and innovation. This also follows from ancient culture and history in Asia. In China much innovation originated including: gun powder, the compass, paper, and golf among many.

He also talks about the perception of outsourcing as a cheap alternative and the dangers of cookie-cutter agile adoption, irrespective of where it is being undertaken:

From experience in the US market I know that it is true that low cost, low effort transitions to Agile are often attempted by simply training Project Managers and developers on Scrum, and changing little else in the organization. 

On a similar note, Bob Gower posted about his experiences at the Agile Singapore conterence:

Conference participants were overwhelmingly from larger companies. Far from the counterculture, startup-heavy Agile of 10 years ago, these participants were well-read in Lean and Agile principles and had a strong interest in large, scaled systems right out of the gate. Everyone I talked to seemed knowledgeable, curious, and compelled by the business importance of changing how things are done.
In conversations with presenters and participants alike I heard people recognize that other markets are generally ahead of the Asian market; but this doesn't mean we can predict where the next few years will take us. Our ability to look back on where the U.S. and European markets have been doesn't necessarily give us predictive ability in Asia. Consider, for example, the spread of cell phone technology, where later entrants into the market were able to leap over the early adopters.

He concludes by pointing out the size and scope of the Asian market, and the focus on scale:

The Singapore Government is investing $1.2 billion in “key areas of technology development to drive improvements within the public sector,” with Agile development as one of those key areas. I suspect that when it comes to applying Agile at scale -- and scale is the only thing that seems to matter to the Asian markets -- companies in Singapore, India, China, and Japan will leapfrog over their U.S. counterparts in coming years.
An indication of the extent of interest and adoption of Agile in Asia is the number of conferences and events which are held in the region every year.  A small sample includes:
EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been updated to provide alternate viewpoints and explore the topic from different dimensions. 

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